Monthly Archives: July 2008

About That Slavery Thing…

Sorta meh on this:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House has apologized to black Americans for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws.

The resolution marks the first time Congress has ever formally apologized for America’s past history of enslaving and discriminating against blacks.

“Today represents a milestone in our nation’s efforts to remedy the ills of our past,” said Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

It’s hard to figure out what good this does.

UPDATE: Melissa Harris Lacewell chimes in:

Here is my problem with this apology. It states that “slavery and Jim Crow are stains upon the what is the greatest nation on earth and the greatest government ever conceived by man.” While I appreciate the effort Representative Cohen, that just does not even come close to capturing it.

White supremacy is not a stain on the fabric of the nation, it is the binding thread woven into America’s fabric. Slavery was not an accidental oversight that simply took another few decades to fix; slavery cleared the virgin forests of the South and made them arable land; slavery was the basis of the new nation’s international trade; slavery made profit possible; slavery enriched millions of white Americans through its intergenerational transmission of ill gotten gains. Agricultural bondage through sharecropping kept blacks effectively re-enslaved in the South until the middle of the 20th century. A system of convict leasing turned black men into free labor for Northern industries well into the 1950s, making their massive profits possible. Medical experimentation on black bodies served as the basis for the growth of modern medicine and pharmaceuticals. Slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy are what made the greatness of America possible for so many others. It is not the stain on America. It is America.

The Housing Crisis, For Dummies.

A few months back, This American Life — for our money, the best show on radio — did a bang-up job of breaking down the collapse of the housing market in a way that even economic idiots like ourselves could understand. They explain how the house of cards all came crashing down: talking to a 22-year-old fresh out of college who was making six figures (a month) selling iffy mortgages, the financial analysts who warned that the sea of cash rolling was too good to be true, and homeowners who received mortgages after their incomes had been unknowingly exaggerated by their lenders.

It’s fascinating stuff.

Armchair Sociology: What’s With Black People and Menthol Cigarettes?

When I was but a wee lad, my moms would send me to the corner store to cop some cigarettes for her. That I was 10 or 11 didn’t seem to matter to the cats behind the counter at the store; I would ask for her cigarettes — always Benson & Hedges Menthol Ultra Lights — they would toss them on the counter, I’d pay and then route. I can’t figure out if the easy access to cigarettes was a function of being in the hood where the store owners were just more lax*, or that the laws surrounding cigarette sales had gotten tighter in the intervening years.**

Anyway, I bring up all this ephemera because of a bill introduced by Henry Waxman that would again give the FDA the power to regulate tobacco products, with a particular emphasis on flavored cigarettes. Sounds straightforward enough, right? The problem is that the bill exempts mentholated cigarettes from FDA oversight. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus say that would have an averse affect on black communities, in which smokers overwhelmingly prefer mentholated cigarettes.

Menthol brands account for 28 percent of the $70 billion American cigarette market. While only 25 percent of white smokers choose menthol cigarettes, an estimated 75 percent of African-American smokers do.

The other issue is that many of members of the CBC receive a grip from tobacco companies, which makes many of them disinclined to push for changes in the legislation (Charlie Rangel, maybe unsurprisingly, is one of ’em).

Philip Morris over the years has been one of the biggest contributors to the caucus’s nonprofit Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. That financial support, in some years exceeding $250,000, and lesser amounts at times from other cigarette makers, has been the reason some critics perceived an alliance between big tobacco and African-American members of Congress, some of whom were willing to help fend off antitobacco efforts.

Among them, some critics have said, was Charles B. Rangel of New York. Although he supported some antitobacco initiatives, until the last few years Mr. Rangel staunchly opposed federal tobacco tax increases. He has said his stand was based on the disproportionate effect of excise taxes on the poor, not the thousands of dollars he received in tobacco industry political action committee donations.

Some caucus members have always seen tobacco money as a Faustian bargain and refused to take such donations, urging their colleagues to do likewise. One of them, John Lewis of Georgia, once told a reporter, “People are reluctant to criticize the giver, to bite the hand that feeds them.”

Black lawmakers who maintain strong tobacco industry ties include James E. Clyburn, who represents a tobacco-growing region of South Carolina and is majority whip of the House. Last year, Altria, the parent of Philip Morris, donated $50,000 to an endowment he established at South Carolina State University, a historically black college.

Buried in here is a question that has long racked my brain but for which I’ve never gotten an answer: why the hell do black folks smoke menthols?

When Chapelle famously asked on his “I Know Black People” game show sketch, he was greeted by a bunch of puzzled looks.

“I don’t know,” a social worker/contestant said.

“That is the correct answer,” he said. “No one knows.” More…

Jay Smooth: How to Tell People They Sound Racist.

Black in America.

We’ve spent the last few weeks avoiding CNN’s incessant importuning to watch ‘Black in America’, and as it neared its premiere yesterday, the din from our social circles only grew louder. E-mail forwards. Facebook status updates. Text message reminders. A vegetarian restaurant nearby actually hosted a screening of it.* It was like the Negro Super Bowl was happening, and people were planning parties around it.

In a conversation with Shani yesterday, she compared the excitement to that anachronistic last page of Jet magazine that lists a bunch of black people who will be appearing on TV in the coming week. And while there was undoubtedly a time when seeing a black person on TV was probably a gather-round-the-RCA moment, that hasn’t been the case for decades. “It’s like it’s 1955 or something!” Shani said.

Her rationale?

1. It’s on CNN, a network incapable of looking at anything with nuance, simply by virtue of it being a cable news channel.

2. Why do blacks in America need to watch a special on being black in America? Is it to verify that we are, indeed, both black and in America?

3. Considering the fact that all black people aren’t from the same background — slavery, namely — it’s ridiculous to suggest we all have the same vision and experience in the US.

4. If there was ‘Hispanic In America’ or ‘Asian in America’ folk would be in an uproar. Mexicans vs. Puerto Ricans, Koreans vs. Vietnamese.

5. I can already tell you what it’s gonna cover: it sucks to be a black woman, because sistas are forced to do it for themselves. Also, black men are an endangered species due to institutional inequity and a propensity for committing violent crime. But blacks have hope for the future. The end.

And here’s a bonus: it’s a ratings ploy! Come ON people!

These more or less sum up my issues with the series, though I’d quibble with a few points. West Indian Caribbean immigrants to the United States may have not had ancestors who suffered under the yoke of slavery in the America, but their ancestors were in those countries because they were slaves. And more recent African immigrants still have to deal with the continuing fallout from centuries of de jure dehumanization and disenfranchisement.

That said, she’s right:  television news routinely does a sublimely shitty job when it comes to nuance. Race and class are particular blind spots; rare is the show that actually lays out the parameters for what it means by ”Asian-American’ (an label so broad that it would include both Bengali and Laotian immigrants) or ‘middle class’ (‘middle class’ in Greenwich or ‘middle class’ in Detroit?) or any other ill-defined sociological descriptor.

The other part is the issue of pluralism: There is no ‘our story,’ or ‘black experience,’ which is where CNN is screwing up: trying to craft a coherent, cohesive narrative about a population of 30 million-plus people — among them Christians and Muslims and atheists and gays and the transgendered and the apathetic and activists and progressives and conservatives and vegetarians and C.E.O.’s and cab drivers and line cooks and physicians. Instead of trying (and necessarily failing) to  paint a ‘general’ portrait of black life in America, it may have been wiser to take a look at one issue and really dig into it. There’s plenty of topics that would be worthy of their own hour-long specials: the wealth and achievement gaps, gun violence, housing, health care, etc.

Also, should we hold out hope that being ‘Black in America’ doesn’t only mean being straight and black in America? Or that there will be more air time for compelling, confounding contrarians like Roland Fryer than for speechifying slicksters like T.D. Jakes? Somehow we’re not terribly optimistic.

Anyway, expect plenty roundtables.

*I actually went initially with the intention to watch and roll my eyes, I ended up being distracted by one of my best friends and the very tasty vegetarian half-chicken.

Vanity Fair Rides for the New Yorker.


We had our own presidential campaign cover in the works, which explored a different facet of the Politics of Fear, but we shelved it when The New Yorker’s became the “It Girl” of the blogosphere. Now, however, in a selfless act of solidarity with our downstairs neighbors here at the Condé Nast building, we’d like to share it with you. Confidentially, of course.

(H/T Maggie)

Sorry for the Slow Updates.

A lot of stuff going on in our respective offline lives, so we’ve been attending to those things.

We soon post, fam.